Todd Glaser’s underwater dreamscapes.

Light / Dark

Something miraculous and strange happens when humans go underwater. Our heart rates slow, and blood is involuntarily diverted to our brains and vital organs for survival. This is called the “mammalian dive reflex.” Scientists have tried to trigger this hardwiring in humans on land, but it just doesn’t happen. Inversely, scientists have also set up gyms underwater and had freedivers swim down and pump iron in an attempt to elevate their heart rates—but their beats hold slow and steady. Underwater, we are calm. And dying.

Maybe the mammalian dive reflex subconsciously resonates when we see a photograph taken underwater. Maybe that’s why we pause on a barrel shot snapped from the octopus’ garden a little longer than one long-lensed from land. Underwater photos may not trompe l’oeil us into a mammalian dive reflex state, but they remind us we have that ability, even if it’s just for a moment. 

They’re also beautiful to look at. 

“I literally have dreams about shooting underwater,” says photographer Todd Glaser, to whom subsurface photos have become an obsession over the last few years. “It’s such a unique perspective to document people, body form, and refracting light. It’s always changing.”   

Dramatic, moody, and downright gorgeous aquatic landscapes were seared into Glaser’s mind before he even picked up a camera. As a kid, he would tango with San Diego’s reef slabs on a bodyboard. He’d airdrop into thick-lipped caverns to catch views deep from within, a reward worth the floggings. Between waves, Glaser watched garibaldi swim through the eelgrass below the surface. Dolphins and seals slipstreamed through the kelp. Chandeliers of light refracted through the morning glass. In years to come, he would learn to manifest such dreamscapes in real life. 

Glaser shot surfing for the first time in 2003. A photo from that initial shoot landed in the pages of Surfer as a Billabong ad, kick-starting his career as a fledgling surf photographer. After graduating from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara in 2008 with a degree in commercial advertising, Glaser won the prestigious Follow the Light award for his work. Shortly thereafter, he became a Surfer staff photographer.  

Glaser’s easygoing demeanor combined with his photographic talent earned him invites on trips with surfing’s elite. Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Greg Long, and more came to depend on him for nailing the shot. At some point, he stopped counting covers. Despite this quick and hard-won success in surf media, Glaser craved something more challenging. 

“I really got the bug for underwater photography on a last-minute trip to Tahiti in 2013,” he says. “At the time there weren’t a whole lot of underwater images I’d seen. When I started making my own, I really got to maximize my knowledge and experience of photography and combine that with my ocean knowledge to create images. It’s such a great way to share surfing, because so few people get to see it from that perspective.” 

Rob Machado amid the textures of hand-blown glass, Mainland Mexico. “When Glaser is shooting underwater,” says Machado, “it’s like he’s invisible. From my perspective, it’s more enjoyable. I’m not worried about where he is. There’s no fisheye lens in my grill as he’s going over the falls above me. It’s all about surfing.”

There’s an inherent timelessness that exists in underwater photos, which helped draw Glaser to the art. “If you shoot above water,” he explains, “surf photos can become very dated because of hairstyles, wetsuits, and boardshorts. But as soon as you go underwater, everything gets very quiet and simplified.”  

There’s nothing simple, however, about creating underwater images. It takes clear water, glassy conditions, and the first wave of the set. That often means taking a beating. And Glaser is willing to pay that physical price. “I’ll hit the reef all-day long because I just want to make something special.” 

Glaser’s oceanic knowledge and photo skills are essential to the formula. Using the wave’s elliptical motion, he bodysurfs behind the wave while panning the surfer with his camera. “The range in which you’re able to shoot is maybe five to ten feet total,” he says. “Communication between the surfer and photographer is really important. I usually ask the surfer what size board they’re on so I know how they’re potentially going to ride waves and position themselves.” 

The gear is technical and expensive. The camera settings are guarded like secret spots. And the odds of scoring are stacked against you. A lot of surf action is missed. “It totally sucks when a guy gets the wave of the day and they’ve already come out of the tube by the time they get to me,” Glaser says. “Or they do a turn ten feet away and I miss the whole thing. That happens a lot.” 

But for Glaser, there’s another factor that trumps all the adversity. As his subjects gear up to paddle out, he’s pulling on his own neoprene, tightening screws, and giving his housing leash a final tug. He strokes out among the waves, the evolving light, and aquatic species. As a set stacks up on the outside and the surfers maneuver into position, he gathers his breath and slips unseen beneath the surface. His heart slows. His blood gathers in his brain and vital organs. Calm. Dying. All the accumulated nerves and excitement of what it took to reach this place disappear in the rising bubbles. He is present in the moment. And those moments, the good ones, they last forever.

Glaser’s always prepared for that last-minute strike to a clear-watered locale—even if it means excusing himself from a formal dinner. Photograph by Matt Wright.